Authors: Jake Logan
“Mrs. Gruhlkey would object,” he said.
They looked at each other, then laughed.
“We're back to finishing each other's sentences,” she said.
The short walk to the hotel could have been a thousand miles and Slocum wouldn't have objected. As it was, Marianne parted company and vanished into the darkened lobby all too soon. Slocum settled his gun belt, tugged on his hat, and headed back toward the jailhouse, feeling a world better for his bathâand confused about what to do. He had never felt the way he did toward Marianne before or after.
Slocum reached the calaboose just as the door opened and Carstairs stepped out. The man stretched mightily, then went toward a horse tethered to an iron ring set into the jail's adobe wall.
Faster than thought, Slocum had his six-shooter out, cocked, and was about to fire when Dangerous Dan Tucker called out for him to stop.
“Prisoner's getting away,” Slocum said. Tucker came up from behind and grabbed his wrist, pulling the pistol out of line.
Carstairs stopped, took in the tableau, then laughed. He swung into the saddle, cockily tipped his hat, and rode away, whistling off-key.
“You can't let him go!” Slocum struggled, then subsided when Sheriff Whitehill exited the jail. Two other men followed him outside.
The sheriff pointedly refused to shake hands, which produced chuckles from the men. They sneered at Slocum, then disappeared around the jailhouse. In less than a minute both rode past, never giving him or the lawmen a second glance.
“You let Carstairs go!” Slocum raged.
“Had to,” Whitehill said. “Those two men gave him an alibi. You're damn lucky I don't clap you in the clink. They said you kidnapped their boss from their mine out in Chloride Flats.”
“What I told you was the truth,” Slocum said.
“Don't doubt it, but it's all three of them varmints' word against yours and Marianne's. Nobody here but Dan knows you and, well, ain't no one in Silver City likely to give much credence to anything Marianne says.”
“Because they think she's a cheap whore?”
“They know she ain't cheap,” Whitehill said. The sheriff stepped back when he saw the dark cloud on Slocum's face. “You go get yourself some sleep. Otherwise, I might just have to put you in a cell.”
The cell Carstairs has just vacated, Slocum thought bitterly. He jerked from the deputy and left them in the street. Slocum wondered how Marianne would react when she found the lawmen had released Carstairs.
He knew how he felt. She'd take it even worse. And that wasn't a good thing for anyone.
Marianne Lomax felt as if Slocum had punched her in the stomach. She wobbled a mite, reached out, and supported herself against a chair in the hotel lobby. She jerked away when he reached out to steady her.
“You cannot be joshing me, John Slocum. I'll rip out your heart if you are.” She saw the weathered lines on his forehead and the forlorn look in his emerald eyes. He stood like a little boy in front of the schoolmarm, fingering the brim of his hat held nervously.
“I tried to stop the sheriff, but there wasn't a thing I could do. Carstairs rode out like a king last night, right after weâ”
“âwe were amusing ourselves in the barbershop,” she said, scowling hard. Her lips pressed down into a thin line. Sucking in a deep breath, she held it for a moment, then released it with an explosive gust. “I will
“Whitehill said two of Carstairs's men alibied him.”
“Lied for him is more like it,” she said, her voice rising. She tried to control her rampaging emotions, then abandoned the attempt entirely. “I'll cut his throat! I swear I will see him in the grave before he ever rides free after all he's done to me!”
“Hush up,” Slocum said, looking around.
“I don't care who knows. He burned me out. He tried to rape me. Carstairs is not going to waltz away without paying for his crimes!”
It surprised her that Slocum cared if anyone overheard, then she saw the focus of his concern. Randolph and Billy sat on the steep stairs and listened to every word coming out of her mouth. For a moment she wished she could take it all back. Setting a poor example for her son distressed her, but Les Carstairs not paying for what he did to her made her furious.
“Randolph, come over here,” she said. Her son approached, but she kept looking at Slocum, wondering if he would help her bring Carstairs to justice. Slocum seemed different from when she knew him in Georgia. He was harder, more pragmaticâand he had been hard-bitten and cynical right after he returned from the war. Principles still ruled his handâhis gun handâbut she had less idea what those ideals were now than when she had known him before.
BeforeÂ .Â .Â .
“Yeah, Ma?” Randolph stood in front of her, looking so young and vulnerable and trying to be a man. He almost succeeded in that, but he would always be her little boy, no matter what.
“You have that knife?”
“The one Billy gave me? Yeah,” he said with some reluctance.
“Give it to me.”
“What? Why? No!”
“Do it,” she said, her anger causing her cheeks to burn. “I don't want you getting any crazy ideas, not after what I just said.”
won't do anything about Carstairs, I will!” Randolph thrust out his chin and tried to look tough. He glanced at Slocum, then at her. She felt as if he had stabbed her with his still sheathed bull cook's knife. In one sentence he had rolled up everything that frightened her the most.
Slocum had killed men. She knew that all too well. But he hadn't offered to be her defender, casting doubt on whatever it was between them. Worse, she had feared Randolph would take up the challenge and go after Carstairs. The mine foreman's reputation resonated in Silver City and beyond as one of utter disregard of human life. Sending men to their death in a poorly built mineshaft bothered him as much as stepping on a bug. He had killed more than one man in a bar fight, claiming self-defense each time. With all the men in town cowed by him, no one dared step forward and testify to the truth.
Texas Jack had never feared Carstairs. The times they had clashed always saw Carstairs backing down. But the man she had loved so and intended to marry was dead. She couldn't even afford a proper burial for him.
“Give me the knife. And don't you go getting another one. You, either, William McCarty,” she said loud enough for the older boy to hear, as if he wasn't following every word with the intensity of a cat at a mouse hole.
“Ma, I won't do nothing that ain't right.”
“Your grammar needs improvement,” she said. “And I need to see that knife passed over to me.” Marianne held out her hand and tried not to shake. She felt as if she had walked onto a stage where everyone expected her to know the lines.
Randolph silently handed over the knife. She took it and slid it into the pocket amid the folds of her skirt.
“You stay out of trouble,” she told her son. She tried to kiss him on the top of his head, but he pulled away and sullenly left. He and Billy spoke in low voices for a moment, then hastened out the front door.
“He wouldn't take on Carstairs by his lonesome,” Slocum said.
“I don't need your opinion, John Slocum. Nor do I need your advice or your help.”
“I didn't let him go. He'll run afoul of the law eventually. Tucker won't take anything off him, and I suspect Whitehill won't either, though he plays it closer to the vest and lets Carstairs hide behind the letter of the law.”
“I need to go to work,” she said. “Good day, sir.”
“It's not even noon,” Slocum said. “The Lonely Cuss won't see customers for hours yet.”
He spoke to the door as she slammed it behind her and stepped into the hot noonday sun. A quick look around failed to reveal where her son had run off to. It didn't matter. She felt she had put the fear of God into him so he wouldn't do anything foolish. For her part, though, Marianne wasn't sure what she would do. She started walking and somehow ended up at the city lockup just as Sheriff Whitehill came out.
He stopped and looked at her. She had never been able to read his expression. He must make one hell of a poker player.
“Morning, Marianne,” he said, politely touching the brim of his hat. “I was headin' out for some grub. Want to join me? I'll buy.”
“Why did you let that snake slither off like that?”
“Suppose Slocum told you.”
“Lester Carstairs deserves to have his guts strung from the telegraph pole all the way across to the lightning rod on top of the hotel.”
“That's a mighty ugly picture you're paintin',” Whitehill said.
“What he did was mighty ugly, Sheriff.”
“Why don't you call me Harvey? We can take this argument down a mite if it's not sheriff and citizen but Harvey and Marianne.”
“I want to step it up, not bury it under your honeyed words, Sheriff Whitehill.”
“You think I'm some kind of silver-tongued fox? Do tell,” he said, nodding as if this explained everything. That made her angry all over again. She had held it in check as she stormed around town, but the embers flared again into a raging forest fire.
“I think Carstairs has you cowed, that's what I think!”
Whitehill shook his head sadly.
“Then you don't know me so good, Marianne.”
“That's Miss Lomax to you, Sheriff Whitehill.” She turned and flounced off, her skirts brushing the dusty street and causing small dust devils wherever she stepped.
She felt him watching her and refused to turn and glare back. When she turned the corner in the street and found a spot beside the bakery, she broke down. Tears streamed down her cheeks, leaving dirty tracks that puckered when the small wind blew across her face and dried the tears with its harsh breath. She forced herself to stop sobbing. All the men in her life had abandoned her. Not a one would stand up to Carstairs.
“Why'd you have to go and get yourself killed, Jack?” She wiped away the tears and blew her nose in a hanky she'd brought from Georgia. It had belonged to her mama and shouldn't be used for such gross cleaning. It was meant to be fluttered about daintily, not become soggy with tears and leakage from her nose.
She crumpled it up and threw it away with sudden determination. If Slocum or Whitehill wouldn't stand up for her, then she had to do it for herself. Head high and anger under control, she went to the livery stables to have a palaver with the owner.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
In an hour she had ridden to the Argent Mine at the edge of Chloride Flats, where she could hear Carstairs bellowing his orders to slacking miners. Marianne watched Carstairs going around the camp, shouting and doing little to actually get the men working harder. If anything, they stopped altogether as soon as his back was turned. She knew she could cajole them into pulling every ounce of silver from the ground and never once raise her voice. All it took was knowing the individual miners. Working in the Lonely Cuss as barkeep had honed her skills dealing with these men. Some could be browbeaten, but others required sweet-talking.
The work in the mine progressed through the afternoon, but Marianne grew increasingly unsure what to do. Riding up and demanding a confession from Carstairs held no appeal. If he could lie to a lawman, he would lie to her. And what if he fessed up about everything? It would be her word against his, and she had seen how well that worked out before. In the eyes of the sheriff and most of Silver City, she was only a harlot willing to say or do anything for a dollar.
More to the point, and this caused a cold chill to pass through her, what if Carstairs took up where he left off when Slocum had run him out of her hotel room? Marianne touched Randolph's knife still in her pocket. It gave her a measure of security, but she had to be close enough for Carstairs to grab her before she could use it. A wild thought crossed her mind.
Why hadn't Billy given Randolph a six-shooter?
The boy had a knack for “finding” things. Even a derringer would have stood her in better stead than a knife.
Then she realized how crazy she was becoming. Young boys and firearms were a dangerous mix. It was common enough for boys to carry knives, but not guns, at least around town.
The only thing she could do was sneak close enough to Carstairs so the knife presented a warning that held him at bay. The image of her drawing the sharp blade across the man's filthy neck both frightened her and gave her a sense of satisfaction. She could kill a man. But murder one? Even Lester Carstairs? She wasn't sure, but if anyone provoked such killer instincts in her, it had to be the mine foreman.
As the sun sank below the Mogollon Rim, she urged her horse to a game trail that skirted the tent city set up to house the miners. Finding a spot to leave the horse was easy enough. The miners were intent on nothing more than wolfing down their food and passing around a whiskey bottle until it was empty. The liquid painkiller served to put most of the men to sleep. One that wasn't intent on finding his bunk and going to sleep was her target.
Carstairs made a circuit of the camp, now mostly asleep, then headed back toward the mine. Marianne sucked in her breath. It was now or never. She made a great deal of noise trailing Carstairs, her skirts catching on bushes and her shoes crunching against gravel in the path. He either didn't hear because he was deaf or was too intent on returning to the mine.
At the edge of the clearing filled with piles of black tailings, she saw him stop and look around. She froze like a deer, not sure if he had spotted her. She trembled as he stared directly at her, then he turned away and began digging in a pile of rocks cast off from the mine. He hadn't seen her in the dark.
She made her way through the mounds of debris and saw him brushing off a box that had been buried. He opened it and fingered the contents, then closed it and stood. He saw her immediately.
His hand flashed to his side, but he wasn't wearing a six-gun. His palm smacked his thigh, then he shifted his weight, dropped the box, and took a pugilist's stance. Fists high, he called out.
“You show yourself, you son of a bitch!”
She stepped forward, still hidden by shadows and the head-high piles of exhausted silver chloride ore.
He lowered his fists when he recognized her.
“Now what brings you out here, little lady? You come to get some of me?” He grabbed his crotch, then made thrusting motions.
“You are disgusting,” she said. “I want you to do the right thing and confess to the sheriff that you burned me out and tried to rape me.”
“Now that's a mighty fine idea, gettin' a little action from a piece of ass so downright purty,” Carstairs said. He kicked the box he had dropped. For a moment, this occupied him more than she did.
Curious, she asked, “What's in the box you'd hidden?”
“Nothin' that concerns you, bitch.”
A flash of clarity staggered her. He was high-grading the ore, stealing the best hunks of ore and putting the nuggets of silver into this box to remove when none of the other miners saw.
“You are despicable,” she said. “You're as crooked as a dog's hind leg. Can you ever do anything honest?”
“So I'll burn in Hell. Ain't no concern of yours.”
“You burned down my house!”
“I thought I'd just run you off so I could find it, but the fire damned near destroyed everything. Still, I'll bet a silver dollar you had it hidden somewhere else.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, dammit. Where'd Texas Jack hide it? Give it to me and we can make a deal. You'd like that, and so would I.” Carstairs stepped forward.
Marianne tried to step away, but her heel caught a hunk of ore and she sat heavily.
“That's more like it, you gettin' all ready for me. We can have a little fun, then we can deal and you'll tell me what you done with it.”
“What the hell are you talking about? And you keep your distance!” She spun about to hands and knees, trying to stand.
He shoved her back to the ground. She sprawled facedown and then he hit her. For a brief instant the world exploded in bright star shells, then a curtain of red pain drew across her eyes as he began pummeling her with his fists. The pain proved almost more than she could endure.
Something deep inside caused her to rebel and refuse to yield. Marianne curled up in a ball, taking the blows on her arms and not her back and head. Then she kicked out as hard as she could. She wanted to drive a foot into his balls, but she missed. The sole of her shoe landed hard on his inner thigh and rolled him away, giving her the chance to scramble to her feet.